Baseball Preview: Oregon State

Stanford was swept by Oregon State two months ago in Corvallis to send the Cardinal into the Pac-10 cellar. Since then, Stanford has turned their season around most recently dominating the Austin Regional last weekend. Up next, it's a rematch with the Pac-10 champion Beavers in a best-of-three series beginning on Saturday. At stake - a berth in the College World Series.

The Stanford Cardinal bats are red-hot.  If they remain hot after this weekend, it will be quite a feat.  The Oregon State Beavers feature the Pac-10's best pitching staff led by one of the most dominant starting rotations in college baseball.  Add in an efficient offense and an excellent defense and hopes are high for a serious run at the national championship for the club from Corvallis.

Oregon State won all three games of their own sub-regional last weekend and bring a spectacular 42-14 overall record into this series with the Cardinal.  A stellar 16-7 Pac-10 season earned the Beavers the right to host one of the 16 regionals.  After a narrow 5-3 win over 4th seeded Wright State in their postseason opener, OSU blasted Kansas (11-3) and Hawaii (12-3) to claim the regional championship.  And with Texas, the national seed they were paired with knocked out, the Beavers get a chance to host a super regional for the second straight year.  Last season, Oregon State also played a Pac-10 foe in this round defeating USC in three games to advance to the College World Series.

The Beavers were picked by everyone to repeat as conference champions this year thanks to a balanced and experienced offensive attack plus the return of three dominant pitchers (two starters and a closer).  They ended up running away with the title for the second straight season and have the postseason experience needed to make a run at the title.

Oregon State held Stanford to just one run in a three-game sweep back in April thanks to three outstanding starting pitching performances.  If the Cardinal are to advance to their first College World Series since 2003, they're going to have to go through those same pitchers that gave them so much trouble two months ago.

Junior right-hander Dallas Buck is the ace of the staff and a two-time All-American.  In 17 starts this year, Buck possesses an excellent 11-2 record to go with a 3.01 ERA.  He's the toughest pitcher to hit on the staff as evident by a .203 opposing average while he fired 8 1/3 scoreless innings against the Cardinal on April 14.

Buck burst onto the college baseball scene as a sophomore when he racked up a 2.09 ERA while featuring a fastball the regularly sat in the high 80's-to-low 90's.  The velocity though hasn't been the same for Buck in 2006 which probably explains the drop in his production.  He's been sitting in the mid 80's throughout the year while he's often known for having a poor demeanor while on the mound.  That all said, even with the higher ERA (and lower strikeout totals), Buck is still considered one of the finest pitchers in the country.
Buck has added some sink to his fastball to complement a solid slider and change-up.  He's a fierce competitor and has impressed scouts with his solid production this year despite not having the same pure stuff as last season.  Stanford can again expect to have their hands full with Buck and will likely need another fantastic outing from Greg Reynolds to have a chance in Game One.

It doesn't get any easier in Game Two for the Cardinal.  Junior right-hander Jonah Nickerson has even better numbers than his classmate and was equally as tough to hit during the series in April.  In 16 starts, Nickerson boasts a 10-4 record to go with a 2.67 ERA.  While Buck's strikeout numbers are down, Nickerson has maintained a one K/per inning pitched output.  He also possesses better control than the ace of the staff with 20 fewer walks and 15 fewer HBP's in the same amount of innings.

Last April, Nickerson worked seven dominant frames against Stanford with just one run and two hits allowed.  He walked a pair and struck out seven.  According to scouts, he doesn't have nearly as high a ceiling as Buck and his smaller size (6'1", 195 lbs. compared to Buck's 6'3", 210 lbs.) hasn't made him as high a pro prospect.  But at the collegiate level over the last two seasons, Nickerson has matched Buck pitch-for-pitch and gives OSU a dominant 1-2 punch atop their rotation.

In the last two seasons:

Buck - 35 GS, 23-3, 2.51 ERA
Nickerson - 34 GS, 19-6, 2.40 ERA

Nickerson is an incredibly smart pitcher on the mound.  And while Buck has been known to lose his cool at times, you won't see that from the #2 man in this rotation.  Nickerson can also throw four pitches for strikes : fastball, cutter, curve, and change-up.

If the series reaches a Game Three, the Cardinal will face sophomore righty Mike Stutes.  An Oregon native, Stutes began his college career in the Bay Area pitching for Mark O'Brien's Santa Clara Broncos.  After an up-and-down freshman campaign (5.40 ERA), Stutes elected to move closer to home where he's excelled in the OSU rotation.  A regular starter since his 6 2/3 scoreless innings versus Stanford on April 13 (3 H, 5 BB, 2 SO), Stutes has become a very capable member of this rotation.

In 12 starts (and three relief appearances), Stutes has a 7-2 record with a 2.88 ERA.  He averages nearly a strikeout per inning pitched (72 IP, 71 SO) and has held opponents to a .237 batting average against (below even Nickerson's .241). 

Pac-10 ERA Leaders:

1. Tim Lincecum, Washington - 1.94
2. Brandon Morrow, California - 2.05
3. Jonah Nickerson, Oregon State - 2.67
4. Mike Stutes, Oregon State - 2.88
5. Dave Huff, UCLA - 2.98
6. Dallas Buck, Oregon State - 3.01
(8. Greg Reynolds, Stanford - 3.36)

Oregon State thrives off of their starting pitching while also featuring one of the most dominant closers in the country.  Lefty Kevin Gunderson has notched a whopping total of 16 saves this year complementing a 2.40 ERA.  He's pitched in over half of their games (31 of 56) and is fully capable of recording more than three outs to seal a victory.

Gunderson saved both of OSU's shutout wins over Stanford in April and will see plenty of action in the late innings this weekend if the games are close.  Of note, Gunderson was a teammate of Nickerson's last summer for Team USA.

Oregon State's 3.50 team ERA is the lowest mark in the conference with the one potential knock on the Beavers being a lack of depth.  However, when your starters are pitching into the sixth or seventh inning (at the very least) every time out and Gunderson is available to close your games, generally not much depth is needed.  Plus, in a super regional format (where three games in a weekend is the maximum), pitching depth sometimes won't come into play.

Oregon State only uses essentially three relievers : Gunderson, Eddie Kunz (5-1, 2.97 ERA), and Joe Paterson (1-0, 4.44 ERA, 1 SV).  No other reliever has seen the field since May 12th.  If the Cardinal can find a way to knock one of these excellent starting pitchers out of the game early on, then it really could work to their advantage in more ways than one.  An extra inning game early in the weekend that eats up this bullpen could also work in Stanford's favor later in the series. 

Gunderson and Paterson are both left-handed, so chances are, the Cardinal will have to do their late-inning damage against a southpaw.

While the pitching is often dominant and the fielding is usually some of the best in the country (.973), the hitting also should pose a major problem for the Cardinal this weekend.  Oregon State scores 7.3 runs per game while their team batting average resides at an impressive .303 clip.  It's an offense that doesn't feature a lot of power (31 HR in 56 games), but they execute very well and make the most of their opportunities.  Oregon State isn't afraid to play small ball while their 69 stolen bases are tied for the second most in the conference.

Pac-10 Player of the Year Cole Gillespie and 2005 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Darwin Barney lead the offensive attack.  Gillespie paces the club with a .383 batting average, 23 doubles, 12 home runs, and 53 RBI.  He also possesses team-best totals of 41 walks, 11 hit by pitches, 15 stolen bases, a .706 slugging percentage, and a .502 on-base percentage. 

A redshirt junior, Gillespie was a part-time player in his first two seasons with the Beavers before his breakout campaign in 2006.  He'll likely bat third in the order and has already earned First Team All-American honors this year from Collegiate Baseball.

Barney is the leadoff man in the order and brings a .339 average with 11 doubles, no homers, and 33 RBI into the series.  Barney, like Gillespie, draws a ton of walks while the strikeout total for the sophomore is an incredibly low 14.  He runs well (14-for-16 SB) and when getting on-base regularly, makes this Oregon State offense one of the best on the west coast.

Gillespie, catcher Mitch Canham (7 HR), and first baseman Bill Rowe (5 HR) are the only serious home run threats in the lineup.  No other player has hit more than two this season. 

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Darwin Barney, SS  (So., .339, 0 HR, 33 RBI, 14 SB)
2. John Wallace, DH  (Fr., .354, 0 HR, 16 RBI, 4 SB)
3. Cole Gillespie, LF  (Jr., .383, 12 HR, 53 RBI, 15 SB)
4. Mitch Canham, C  (So., .289, 7 HR, 44 RBI, 7 SB)
5. Shea McFeely, 3B  (Sr., .295, 2 HR, 44 RBI, 5 SB)
6. Bill Rowe, 1B  (Sr., .323, 5 HR, 44 RBI, 1 SB)
7. Tyler Graham, CF  (Jr., .287, 1 HR, 14 RBI, 8 SB)
8. Scott Santschi, RF  (Jr., .288, 1 HR, 27 RBI, 4 SB)
9. Chris Kunda, 2B  (Sr., .294, 2 HR, 37 RBI, 2 SB)

SP - Dallas Buck, RHP  (Jr., 11-2, 3.01 ERA, 107.2 IP, 51 BB, 82 SO)
SP - Jonah Nickerson, RHP  (Jr., 10-4, 2.67 ERA, 107.2 IP, 31 BB, 105 SO)
SP - Mike Stutes, RHP  (So., 7-2, 2.88 ERA, 72.0 IP, 35 BB, 71 SO)

It was a memorable weekend for the Cardinal down in Austin as Stanford swept through the regional posting a pair of convincing wins over N.C. State sandwiched between a victory over the host and defending national champion Longhorns.  Stanford has struggled for most of the season at the plate, but put forth an incredible effort in the three games at Disch-Falk Field.  In their three wins, the Cardinal scored an amazing 36 runs on 54 hits capped off by their 17-7 rout of the Wolfpack on Sunday afternoon.  The Stanford hitters have to be at their highest confidence level of the season right now and will need every ounce of that this weekend against the vaunted OSU pitching staff.

The Cardinal had very little success versus the Beavers in mid-April when they were swept in a three-game series to fall into last place in the Pac-10.  Stanford was shutout in the first two games of the set before managing just one run in a 12-1 loss on get-away day.  The Oregon State pitching staff, as described above, is good, but this appears to be a completely different Cardinal hitting group than what they saw two months ago. 

Chris Minaker earned Austin Regional Most Outstanding Player honors after rapping out nine hits in 14 at-bats for a .643 average.  He led the 24-hit attack in the championship game versus N.C. State by going 5-for-5 with six runs scored.  The senior leader has raised his season average to .363 to go with team-best totals of 20 doubles, three triples (tied), 11 homers, 68 RBI, and a .598 slugging percentage.  You could make a case that Minaker and Gillespie are the two most complete hitters in the Pac-10 this season.

Minaker received plenty of help last weekend and continued success is obviously paramount to Stanford in their quest for a College World Series berth.  Classmate Chris Lewis picked up five hits and four RBI in the last two games as his season batting average climbs to .311.  Michael Taylor found his home run stroke over the last few weeks while his average has jumped to .326.  Meanwhile, Ryan Seawell continues to produce at the top of the order with his .323 average and .426 on-base percentage.  And these are just some of the names at the top - it took a complete effort, one-through-nine, to put up the kind of numbers Stanford produced last weekend. 

The Cardinal figure to use the same three starting pitchers this weekend in Greg Reynolds, Nolan Gallagher, and Jeremy Bleich.  Reynolds has tossed five complete games in his last six starts and is now just one strikeout away from reaching 100 on the season.  The matchup with Buck on Saturday figures to be a low-scoring affair with two of the finest pitchers in the country on the mound.

Gallagher and Bleich both had up-and-down starts last weekend against Texas and N.C. State respectively.  Both have very solid season numbers with Bleich already enjoying plenty of success versus the Beavers this year.  In an April 14 start in Corvallis, the southpaw fired six-plus innings with just one run and three hits allowed.  It was Bleich's first career start.  Meanwhile, Gallagher relieved the southpaw in the bottom of the seventh and didn't allow a hit over the next two innings.  Unfortunately, a Gallagher balk did allow the only run of the game to come across and score.

Out of the bullpen, Erik Davis (1-1, 3.82 ERA, 4 SV) solidified himself as the go-to reliever last weekend in Austin.  Davis worked 3 2/3 scoreless innings over the last two games picking-up a save in each contest.  Matt Manship (2-6, 5.59 ERA) and Austin Yount (4-0, 2.42 ERA, 1 SV) also figure to see action in middle relief this weekend with Sean Ratliff (2-0, 6.18 ERA) acting as the primary lefty out of the bullpen.

Probable Starting Lineup:
1. Ryan Seawell, CF  (Jr., .323, 2 HR, 14 RBI, 5 SB)
2. Grant Escue, DH  (Fr., .462, 0 HR, 8 RBI, 0 SB)
3. Chris Minaker, SS  (Sr., .363, 11 HR, 68 RBI, 5 SB)
4. Michael Taylor, RF  (So., .326, 5 HR, 39 RBI, 2 SB)
5. Chris Lewis, 2B  (Sr., .311, 8 HR, 48 RBI, 2 SB)
6. Jason Castro, 1B  (Fr., .286, 3 HR, 18 RBI, 5 SB)
7. John Hester, C  (Sr., .274, 2 HR, 25 RBI, 5 SB)
8. Randy Molina, 3B  (So., .305, 0 HR, 10 RBI, 0 SB)
9. Jim Rapoport, LF  (Jr., .249, 2 HR, 30 RBI, 3 SB)

SP - Greg Reynolds, RHP  (Jr., 7-5, 3.36 ERA, 120.2 IP, 28 BB, 99 SO)
SP - Nolan Gallagher, RHP  (So., 5-4, 3.75 ERA, 62.1 IP, 28 BB, 48 SO)
SP - Jeremy Bleich, LHP  (Fr., 4-4, 4.05 ERA, 60.0 IP, 16 BB, 37 SO)

* Oregon State didn't lose a series at home during the entire regular season.  The Beavers swept non-conference series' from Nevada, Utah Valley State, and UT-Pan American.  In conference play, they swept Stanford, took two-of-three from Washington and Arizona, and split a rain-shortened two-game series with UCLA.  Their current home record is 25-4.

* The Beavers also had some trouble against UC Davis this season.  Back on February 24 in Davis, the Aggies shocked OSU 2-1 in the only game played between the teams at a round-robin tournament.

* Cole Gillespie is currently second in the Pac-10 in batting average (Jared Prince, Washington State - .401), second in doubles, and tied for third in home runs.

* Chris Kunda was named the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year for his excellent work at second base (five errors in 233 chances).  The #9 hitter brought out the big bat last weekend in earning Corvallis Regional Most Outstanding Player honors.  Kunda hit a key two-run, eighth inning double in their opening 5-3 win over Wright State.  He then homered twice in the victory over Kansas - his first two longballs of the season.

* Oregon State is fifth in the Pac-10 in batting average, first in ERA, and second in fielding percentage.  Stanford is sixth in hitting, fourth in pitching, and fifth in defense.

* All of the Beavers' top players are from the state of Oregon: Buck, Nickerson, Stutes, Gillespie, Barney, and Rowe.  Head coach Pat Casey has done a fantastic job finding and securing the top talent in his own state with 25 players on the current roster from Oregon.  Only three hail from California with none of the trio playing significant roles on the team.

* Stanford's offense is obviously making most of the headlines right now, but the overall defensive effort of late has been equally as impressive.  After going consecutive games without an error just once this year (first two games of the season versus CS Fullerton), the Cardinal have not committed an error now in six straight contests.  Their last miscue was in the final game of the UCLA series on May 21st.

* Stanford has now played in six super regionals over the last eight years but their first since 2003.  That was also the last year the Cardinal reached the College World Series.  Stanford swept their super regional from visiting Long Beach State notching a pair of low-scoring victories behind the starting pitching performances of John Hudgins and Mark Romanczuk (defeating Abe Alvarez and Jered Weaver respectively).

* While the Cardinal hitters struggled mightily at Oregon State back in April, the pitchers more than held their own over the first two games allowing a total of four runs.  Reynolds (7 IP, 7 H, 3 R, 4 BB, 7 SO)  suffered the loss in the first game with the Beavers striking for all three of their runs in the bottom of the sixth.  The combination of Bleich and Gallagher then allowed just one run the following day in a 1-0 defeat.  The series finale saw OSU blast Manship, David Stringer, and Yount for 12 runs (nine earned) in a rout.

* Stanford is 12-4 in their last 16 contests while scoring at a 7.9 runs per game clip.  The team batting average is at .340 during the stretch of games while their overall record improved from 21-21 to its current mark of 33-25.

Oral Roberts at #1 Clemson
College of Charleston at #8 Georgia Tech
North Carolina at #4 Alabama
Missouri at #5 CS Fullerton

Stanford at Oregon State
Miami at Mississippi
Oklahoma at #2 Rice
South Carolina at #7 Georgia

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